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Looking to Drive Collaboration? Look Beyond the Tech

I'm at the Unify Analyst Summit this week, getting a preview of the soon-to-be-released "Project Ansible." The details--including the product's new name--are under NDA until next week, at which time I'm sure you'll see plenty of posts outlining the specifics; suffice it to say that the software delivers a complete suite of UCC capabilities. I expect to see more features and design tweaks in the coming months and years that will make it the truly unifying platform it promises to be.

But it doesn't address the key question about enterprise collaboration, one that many analysts, consultants and vendors are struggling to answer: How do we get people to actually use these applications and services to better work together and improve business outcomes?

Several others on this forum have wondered why the market for unified communications and collaboration (UCC) products is flat. Frost & Sullivan research shows the same trends, so it's not that the data is wrong--it's that companies (driven by their end users) just aren't seeing the value. Indeed, our most recent survey of more than 1,000 IT decisions makers in the US and Europe shows that 42% of them don't even understand what UCC is.

In fact, the technology itself isn't complicated--although it's taken a long time for us to get to truly integrated communications like Ansible, let alone communications-enabled business processes (CEBP), the supposed Holy Grail of UC, promised lo so many years ago.

What's complicated is actual collaboration. The need for UCC is there, of course; the changing nature of the workplace demands it. No one expects to be able to find their colleagues in person any more, regardless of where they work--we are too busy being "mobile" and "virtual" for that. Technology had to be developed to take the place of the in-person interactions that, until a decade ago, were the foundation of the workplace. UCC tools satisfy that. (We can argue the details about which does so best, but they all share a common vision.)

And both of those are impeding the move toward truly innovative, game-changing collaboration. The social anthropologist in me sees several reasons for this, but let me outline just a few here:

Knowledge hoarding is more natural than knowledge sharing. A recent article in the Times notes that a new study shows that many employees intentionally hide information from their colleagues--even when they are asked directly to share it, for the good of the organization. The authors' hypothesis for why they behave this way is that the old adage, "knowledge is power," still holds true. In fact, it has held true throughout human history, so it's kind of hard to see why today, all of a sudden, that calculation would change without a strong change in the culture to go with it. Which brings us to...

Companies still reward individual performance. The authors of the above study suggest that the way to change this trend--which they and others insist is not actually good for the organization or the individual employee, since other employees refrain from sharing information with known hoarders, leading to a vicious cycle--is to change reward structures to focus more on group effort than personal performance. In theory, this makes sense. In practice, not so much.

Most employees want to be compensated based on their own work, not on whether their colleagues are performing well. So while most people are happy to accept bonus compensation based on company performance, I've never met anyone whose salary is tied to the output of an entire group. My guess is few employees would be willing to place their entire livelihood in the hands of their co-workers, lest one or more of them shirk their duties and hold everyone back.

One way to address this is to reward individuals for their willingness and ability to collaborate effectively with their colleagues. Companies can look at activity as it happens on their own internal networks and social sites, measure results, and then reward good actors as appropriate. A product like Ansible should make this possible. But for most organizations, that will require an enormous culture shift. And it may not even deliver results because...

Collaboration isn't easy. One of the challenges UCC--and especially "game-changing" products like Ansible--try to address is the need to get the right information to the right people at the right time. The idea is to provide a single place to go to find people, data and communications, and then use these tools in context based on the task(s) at hand.

But the reality is, most of us can't process more than a certain amount of information at any given time. Research shows that we are terrible at multi-tasking, even if we think we aren't. And get more than three people into a meeting and it all goes south. Indeed, when we look at how people work well together, the most critical element is to keep it small: involve just two or three people; keep the project focused on discrete tasks; and limit the number of inputs--people, data, tech--that need to be involved in the engagement.

Products like Ansible do a great job of bringing lots of stuff together, which is really important in a global, virtual workplace, in which thousands of employees are working around the world on multiple disparate projects, leveraging petabytes of data. Employees working on their own still need ready access to information--which may reside in structured or unstructured systems, or in peoples' heads--and they need to be able to connect to their co-workers as needed, from anywhere and on any device.

But will this increase collaboration? History would suggest not.

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